By Eric W. Siddall
It is September and that means it’s back to school for about 300 Project LEAD volunteers. Project LEAD, which stands for Legal Enrichment and Decision Making, is a partnership between the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office and the Constitutional Rights Foundation. The program is designed to teach critical thinking skills to nearly three thousand 5th graders regarding issues of tolerance, diversity, and the benefits of staying in school. About 80 percent of the volunteers are Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorneys, paralegals and investigators. Assistant United States Attorneys, and Los Angeles Deputy City Attorneys make up the remainder.
Project LEAD was created by the District Attorney’s Office in 1993. It continues to receive the full support of District Attorney and former Project LEAD volunteer, Jackie Lacey. As District Attorney, Ms. Lacey has taken a particularly active role in recruiting DDAs to bring this program to underresouced schools.
LEAD is unique in that it targets children in a particular age range. The core purpose is to help students critically examine the importance of staying in school and making good life choices before negative influences associated with middle school and junior high can begin to influence their behavior. The model is predicated on intensive student engagement. Volunteers teach a 20-week curriculum that includes lessons about the criminal justice system, the rule of law, how courts function, conflict resolution, and resisting peer pressure.
A research study confirmed the positive effect LEAD has on students. It found that LEAD students outperformed demographically similar non-LEAD students in several areas, including: understanding the importance of staying in school, instilling a belief of being college bound, valuing diversity, avoiding bad influences, understanding the consequences of their decisions, and thinking of the legal system as protecting them.
The program benefits both the students and the volunteers. One volunteer, Deputy District Attorney Brenda Lee stated that, “Project LEAD is a terrific program that helps us connect with the communities we serve. It gets attorneys out of the office and courtroom into the local schools where we can see the positive impact the program makes on students.”
Project LEAD is unique among Los Angeles County Departments as the only program staffed by county employees volunteering their time on top of their normal work duties to help young people learn to make choices that keep them out of the criminal justice system. At a time when greater focus is being placed on programs to keep people out of the criminal justice system rather than attempting to divert them after they have already engaged in criminal conduct, Project LEAD serves as a model. The ADDA applauds this year’s volunteers for taking time from their busy schedules to serve our community.
Eric W. Siddall is Vice President of the Association of Los Angeles Deputy District Attorneys, the collective bargaining agent representing nearly 1,000 Deputy District Attorneys who work for the County of Los Angeles.